Everyone knows the usefulness of what is useful, but few know the usefulness of what is useless.

Zhuangzi

Human beings do not have to make art to survive, which is why it’s relegated to the highest (last) place in Maslow’s much quoted hierarchy of needs.

But it’s a grave mistake to think that those things we are not obliged to do are not important to us. On the contrary, their importance arises precisely from the fact that we’re not obliged to do them. They’re important because we choose to do them, because we want to do them, because we wouldn’t feel ourselves if we couldn’t do them.

That is why every human society has produced art, and why its art is often the only aspect of that society to have survived the passage of time. Art exists because we need to make it. It survives because we treasure what others have made.

Nu-Urban Gardeners at Gedney Marsh  (photo Rosie Redzia)
Nu-Urban Gardeners at Gedney Marsh (photo Rosie Redzia)

Useful things lose their usefulness as time passes and societies change: they get thrown away. Art never loses its value because it is not useful, but pleasurable, intriguing, unsettling, delightful, disturbing, amusing and entertaining.

Useful things can be explained and understood, finally, by an account of their purpose. Art, without a fixed purpose, can never be silenced by being understood. Someone will always discover new meanings, new questions and new pleasures in it.

Art is wrapped up in everything we want to do in the never-ending search to fulfill ourselves as human beings, to express our love, to speak our desires and our terrors, to create an identity, to build community, to make sense of life.

Art’s uselessness is one reason why, in a manner of speaking, it’s so very useful.

9 thoughts on “The useful uselessness of art

  1. Hi François, I was at the research seminar yesterday at Gray’s and found your comments very interesting indeed. I noticed that you mentioned this post on your blog and I was reminded of a fantastic paper from 1939 by Abraham Flexner on exactly the same subject: the usefulness of useless knowledge. I think you’ll like it a lot:

    1. Ahh, wordpress won’t allow me to post a link so you’ll have to type “http” before the following to get it to work ://library.ias.edu/files/UsefulnessHarpers.pdf
      otherwise just google “Flexner useless”

  2. delighted to be used to illustrtae your elegant and insightful analysis franacois (this was a particularly memeorable and rewarding encounter. Very few ‘bums on seats’ but much that was ‘meaningful’

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